Small Wars Journal

Do Drones Make Warfare Too Easy?

Are Drones a Technological Tipping Point in Warfare? by Walter Pincus, Washington Post.

"Debates are growing at home and abroad over the increasing use of remotely piloted, armed drones, with a new study by the British Defense Ministry questioning whether advances in their capabilities will lead future decision-makers to 'resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously.'"

Are Drones a Technological Tipping Point in Warfare?.


j_earl (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 8:10pm

Valuable tools indeed, no doubt of the importance. Whereas leaders may find it easier to wage war, I propose that they review the wars of the last decade to see that no matter what tools are available, war is never simple.

Bill M. (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 1:39am

James Harris:

I don't think the argument should be, or is, over whether drones are manly, or whether or not we should continue to seek our asymmetric advantages through better technology. The argument needs to focus on ethics of going to war (don't go just because we think our technology will make it easy) and identifying the limits of air power (once again, this time with drones).

Congress is pushing DOD to buy more drones and robots for multiple reasons, but primarily to reduce putting our people at risk. The same Congress will then find it less risky to intervene militarily because it will perceived there is less risk to do so. In my opinion OIF is such an example, and President Bush stated our technology will allow us to redefine war (of course it didn't quite work out that way). Peter Singer addresses this important topic at length in his book "Wired for War". He also addresses the legal aspects of using drones (and other robots). He writes that our technology is evolving quicker than our body of laws to govern their use. For example, drones with increasing levels of artificial intelligence can take the human out of the decision cycle, so at that point who is accountable for mistakes and worse war crimes? For it to be a war crime there has to be intent, and of course a robot can't have intent (at least not yet). A lot more in the book, but this is a critically important topic that needs to be discussed and debated at length.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 1:27am


I figured he meant all the people needed to get the drone into the air, but his statement implied that they all are part of some kind of ethical oversight team. That was just silly but we're supposed to take it seriously.

Your two concluding points are well taken.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 1:21am


I didn't mean to say that Bowie knives are better than Preds. They obviously both have their place. My meaning was unclear and I will try to do better. What bothers me is when the droners claim that not only can the Pred fly for a long time it can also cut bread better than a Bowie knife. That is an exageration (sic) for effect but sometimes they do make claims that are just foolish. I read once where a droner seriously claimed that he could get almost as good an idea about what went on and how it went on it a village as repeated on the ground patrols could, something about watching all the time and knowing what went on.

Drones are great for some things, but as Mr. Turcan said, if more people are looking at screens than are looking into people's eyes, something is very wrong. I fear that the droners don't believe that to be true.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 12:49am

<b>Carl:</b><blockquote>"Let me get this straight, 180 people are all hanging around together coming to a consensus on whether to launch that Hellfire."</blockquote>I believe he means 180 people spread between Command and Operating Cells at Nellis or elsewhere; maintainers, fuelers, avionics repair folks and armers at the ground base in Afghanistan or where ever; the crews that maintain the dedicated satellite links; and the JTAC on the ground controlling the strike -- all in multiple shifts changing IAW local time zones around the globe dictates.<blockquote>"The art of war is advanced because we have another cool graphic to look at."</blockquote>Or, more accurately, the art of legal and acceptable to Congress justification for strikes is evidenced by demand, not by desire. Note also that item was in reference to CIA Predators, not those of the Air Force.<blockquote>"No wonder people make fun of the Air Force."</blockquote>People may. Other people who ride with them and depend on their support (and are still around due to them) usually do not other than in competitive good humor.

James Harris, Jr. (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 12:15am

... and also, while the Air Force culture is obviously different, I don't fault the USAF for being -- the Air Force!

James Harris, Jr. (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 12:12am

I am troubled by the above article and comments to this point. The thematic, philosophical thrust of these comments is that we should some how feel bad about using technological means to give us an edge on the battlefield. The implication is that, if we didn't win with bowie knives and tomahawks, or our bare hands, that we've somehow done it wrong. ... And I think that THAT is wrong!

As for the temptation to resort to force more readily, I think that the appeal to "diplomacy" is over-done. Of course nobody wants somebody going kinetic at the drop of a hat anymore than we sanction ill-tempered over-reaction individually in the name of self defense. But we don't want to make self defense impossible either.

The greater risk is that we'll become like the Europeans. We will have so badly compromised our ability to act forcefully that we will retreat behind the noble-appearing blandishments of "talky-talky" when stronger action is needed -- because we will have thrown away the ability to do anything else, and it'll be the only way we can pretend to feel good about ourselves.

We are already in the process of doing this, with current budget cuts and an administration that is embarrassed by the very idea of actually winning!

carl (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 9:58pm


I understand Ms. Farrell's point but I don't see how whatever is said about drones can't also be said about cruise missiles, GMLRs or manned aircraft, especially bombers from on high. The argument that we are not fighting in a manly way can be made just as easily when referring to those weapons as they can about drones.

I don't think anything we do or don't do has much effect on how AQ and their affiliates perceive the propriety of attacks upon civilians in far away places. After all, the biggest attack of them all on civilians occurred before any of this drone business got started. They live in their own fantasy world driven by their fantasy ideology. That phrase comes from the book Civilization and Its Enemies. The author points out that for adherents of such an ideology, like AQ, we are just a prop in their lethal theatre. I think The Insurgent Archipelago makes somewhat the same point.

The real problem with drones is their effect upon us. Some of the things the Air Force types and drone enthusiasts say and think are quite amazing. They have a fantasy ideology all their own.

The Washington Post article cited contains some interesting quotes from the droners.

"Lt. Col. Bruce Black, program manager for the Air Force Predator and Reaper aircraft, noted that some 180 people are involved in each drone mission. The result, he said, is that "there is more ethical oversight involved with unmanned air vehicles than with manned aircraft."'

Let me get this straight, 180 people are all hanging around together coming to a consensus on whether to launch that Hellfire. And I thought one of the selling points of drones was they were less manpower intensive. Geesh.

"At the same conference, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden described how, with a Predator circling overhead, those involved in ordering use of its missiles from thousands of miles away can call up computer maps that show the potential effects of each weapon.

Before any of the Hellfire missiles are launched, he said, the backup team asks for the "the bug splat" of the attack -- a readout of the impact the missile would have on its ground target. Nothing comparable can be done with ground-supporting manned aircraft, he said."

The art of war is advanced because we have another cool graphic to look at.

"Col. Dean Bushey, deputy director of the Air Force Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, pointed out that the crews that run Predators in Nevada go through the exact routines that airplane pilots do prior to a mission. They go through a restricted area, wear brown flight suits, receive a mission brief and are put into a "warrior ethos" before ever stepping into a ground control station. "You are executing a mission to save lives," he said."

We are supposed to be impressed because the drone drivers wear brown flight suits just like the real pilots and have warrior ethos.

No wonder people make fun of the Air Force.


Mon, 04/25/2011 - 6:06am

Posted last week on 'The drone paradox' thread, which elicited no comment:

Hat tip to CLS e-briefing to a report in The Guardian:
Britains Ministry of Defence commissioned an in-house study last month examining the ethics of drones, according to the Guardian, and is urging policymakers to consider norms and rules that would govern the use of the rapidly developing technology and robotic warfare. According to the Guardian, the report states that "the recent extensive use of unmanned aircraft over Pakistan and Yemen may already herald a new era," and that "every time a mistake is made," insurgents are able to cast themselves "in the role of underdog and the west as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely." The report continues that the authors hope policymakers will engage in a conversation about the implications of remote warfare, including whether individuals operating drones are considered combatants.
Link to article:

There is a superb commentary on the issues involved, which I hesitate to select a quote from on Leah Farrell's blog: